City’s attempt to get off water list uncommon

The city of Grand Junction’s attempt to get Juniata Reservoir removed from a list of “impaired” waters in Colorado is a rare pursuit, according to City Water Services Manager Rick Brinkman.

“We’re breaking new ground, not wanting our reservoir listed. Most other people let it go,” Brinkman said.

Because it’s uncommon, Brinkman said he’s not sure how successful the city will be in getting Juniata off the list, called the 303d list, before the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission adopts the list at its March 9 meeting.

Most bodies of water are placed on the list because of temperature or pH balance problems or because the water contains unsafe levels of items ranging from E. coli to zinc,  Of the 336 sections or bodies of water included in the list, just 19 are on the list because of something wrong not with the water quality, but with the quality of wildlife in the water.

This is the case with Juniata Reservoir, where an unsafe level of mercury (0.5 parts per million) was found in at least one fish in the reservoir. Various types of fish caught in Juniata were tested for mercury levels, but only smallmouth bass were found to have unsafe levels of mercury in their tissue. Because the fish remains are combined by species for testing, its unknown how many small mouth bass contained unsafe amounts of mercury.

Mercury usually gets into fish through the food chain, Brinkman said. Mercury, which can come from sources varying from industrial by-product to geological origins, gets into soil and plants at the bottom of the water. Small fish and plankton eat the plants, bigger fish eat the smaller fish, and the mercury gets carried into their tissue in an organic form, which is more toxic. Each new mercury-tainted fish consumed leaves behind more mercury in the bigger fish’s body and accumulates in the tissue over time.

Mercury can get into water where fish contain mercury, but the levels often remain at lower levels than what appears in the fish and remain in the less toxic inorganic form, according to Brinkman. Juniata provides “almost all of our drinking water” in Grand Junction, Brinkman said, adding the reservoir holds about a year’s worth of water.

After the findings were released in February 2009, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issued a fish consumption advisory at the reservoir. The city restricted fishing at the reservoir and posted a sign warning fishers of the dangers of consuming certain types of fish caught in the water.

The city closed the reservoir entirely to fishing last Friday in response to Juniata’s possible addition to the 303d list. The city hopes taking steps to lift the fish consumption advisory, such as closing the reservoir to fishing and presenting plans to get rid of contaminated fish, will convince the water quality control commission there no longer would be a reason to include Juniata on the 303d list. The reservoir will remain closed at least through March 9.

“Our long-term goal would be to work out a program where another fish species could be introduced and the contaminated fish species would be removed,” City Manager Laurie Kadrich said.

One possibility would be to hold only fish that don’t eat other fish, such as trout, in the reservoir, thus decreasing the risk of mercury contamination. The smallmouth bass in the reservoir were placed there by an unknown source and are an unwelcome species in the city’s eyes.

“If these species weren’t introduced, this wouldn’t have happened,” Kadrich said.

Steve Gunderson, director of the water quality control division of the CDPHE, said the state is open to working with the city.

“There would have to be way to get rid of fish or isolate the reservoir” to make that happen, he said.

If the reservoir gets on the 303d list, the state would have to set a hazard mitigation plan for Juniata, Brinkman said. The city would have to convince the CDPHE that the city is “adequately preserving” the health of its citizens, or the state could take control of the reservoir and/or incur fines, City Attorney John Shaver said.

Shaver said taking Juniata off the preliminary 303d list is a priority for the city mostly because of the perception that all bodies of water on the list have undrinkable water.

“It’s the principle,” he said.


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